Over three decades spent leading engineering and technical organizations, I am convinced that modern road science offers an enormous innovation dividend in reduced road costs and improved road quality.

However, this dividend is not being pursued because our road agencies are not organized for progress. Until we organize our system so that innovation drives success or failure, we will continue to suffer with continued low quality and high cost road systems.

An earlier TOC blog post described the work of PSI Technologies of Saskatoon. I’m proud that as Deputy Minister of Highways more than a decade ago I played a role in establishing PSI. Their 21st century approach to road engineering based on mechanistic analysis and computer simulation tools highlights the folly of the outdated diagnostics, design, and maintenance methods used by most cities.

Road damage is not the simple incremental accumulation of thousands and thousands of loadings over time as traditional approaches approximate. Damage occurs unevenly—disproportionately when road structures are weakened due to moisture, excessive heat, or other irregular conditions. This means that managing road loadings during vulnerable periods to match road capacity could pay enormous cost and quality dividends. For example, “rutting” occurs when tire pressures from heavy loads exceed pavement strength. This vulnerability is extreme on hot summer days but not the other 95% of the year.  Freeze-thaw cycles in spring and fall greatly reduce road durability.  Yet, truck loadings on city roads are practically unregulated.

A key perspective on this is to pause and reflect on truck movements. They look random—almost chaotic.  They’re not. Only a small portion of trucks in cities are actually heavily loaded, and those trucks always have a specific point of origin. These movements can be managed.  Ironically, on local streets, most heavy vehicles are owned and operated by the city—garbage trucks, maintenance trucks, and buses. These movements could be the first target for innovation.

Step by step for years we’ve been increasing maximum truck axle weights. Science shows that road damage is proportional to axle loads to the fourth power. That means a doubling of axle weights causes 16 times the damage, while even a much smaller 20% still doubles the damage. If we redesign the trucks and trailers by distributing loads rather than increasing axle weights, could the existing heavy loadings be maintained without extra costs?

But our civic leaders have not been engaged by engineering organizations to understand this innovation dividend.  Instead they focus on money. You’re familiar with the argument.  “City taxpayers are fatigued with property tax. Senior governments have superior tax power. So…”

Recently, in Regina and Saskatoon focus groups, I confirmed that raising property taxes causes concern for the simple reason “that money just disappears.” When I sketched the option of paying directly on a neighbourhood basis for local streets, or into a dedicated fund for the busy streets, taxpayers’ responses change. “If we could trust the system to take extra money and actually spend it on roads that would be OK.”  This is a trust and understanding challenge.

The City of Regina has an elegant little back alley program which charges a small footage for gravel alleys and a little more for paved alleys. The “footage rate” is calculated every year to provide a set level of service. If this works for alleys, could it also work for local streets with neighbourhoods choosing a level of service that matched their willingness to pay?

Let’s do a quick calculation. Suppose each household in your city paid $1 per day. Would that be enough to maintain local streets? At that rate every 10,000 homes contributes $3.6 million a year. I’m betting it would be more than what is required for local streets. The new revenue would go even further if heavy vehicle loadings were better managed to lower damage. Supplement this “footage revenue” with simple fees based on parking or vehicle use, and you’d have sufficient money to manage all the roads in your city.

Now the harder part—organizing to embrace innovation.

Economic history proves that long-term progress flows from innovation. Nations always progress when they find ways to manage activity so that innovative leads to the elimination of inferior alternatives.

Innovation can be dramatic, but it can also occur slowly and steadily, almost invisible to the outside observer. Suppose a road management organization was able to sustain an average 3% per year productivity advantage over it competitors. Over 10 years, the productivity advantage grows to more than 25%. In any system focused on innovation, that organization and its customers are winners.

Our modern road, telephone and electrical systems all have roots more than a century old when they were established with government funding and operated as government departments. Yet, telephone and electrical systems evolved into a range of regulated public and private utilities. Counting provinces, territories, cities, and towns, Canada has more than 1,000 separate government organizations managing the building, maintenance and operation of roads in Canada. Include villages and other categories of smaller road departments, and Canada has about 4,000 separate road entities. Is this a model for progress?

Suppose Canada moved over 10-20 years to a far different approach. Each city would manage long term contracts with perhaps three or four firms who compete regularly for market share. Each city would develop and lead a system for engaging users in what specific service level they desire, what that would cost, and how that money would be collected. Total long-run road costs would be optimized by the road service firm offering the lowest long-run cost of service.  Financing necessary for success would be provided by the service firm and its bankers, or in partnership with the city it serves—whatever we learn works best. To be clear, I am sketching a design-build-manage-maintain contract model.

Imagine what a competitive system would do for innovation. We’d probably start with quite a few firms, but over time there would be a few dozen road service firms operating across Canada. Innovations that improved road durability, reduced damage, reduced costs, or improved service would win out over time.

I’m not proposing that Mayors and Council in any city cede power or asset ownership. Indeed, I foresee them gaining real power and control through management of long term contracts with world class competitors for their business.

The new science is available, the vision simply involves borrowing from experience in other sectors, and each city could blaze a path forward that best matches its goals and circumstances.

Would it be worth it?  I think the potential now for roads is like it was for computers in the 1970s. A few leading companies were showing the way, but somebody needed to see the potential and take the lead. We all know the innovation which followed.

It could happen for roads.  But, we need to start step-by-step with new business systems and innovation-driven organizations.

– By Clare Kirkland

Clare Kirkland is Director of Strategic Development at the Regina Regional Opportunities Commission. He is a former Deputy Minister of Highways and Transportation in the Province of Saskatchewan and spent three decades leading engineering and technical organizations. He has been Chief Executive of infrastructure organizations, including Sask Water Corporation. He co-owned a computer services company which was then sold to Systemhouse.